Spring 2013

The Meaning of Catastrophe

Listed in: Special Seminar, as COLQ-331


Lawrence R. Douglas (Section 01)
Austin D. Sarat (Section 01)


From Noah's flood to the Haitian earthquake, from the Black Death to the Great War, catastrophes have threatened, disrupted, and overturned patterns of daily existence. As radically disordering events, catastrophes have the power to lay bare the fragility of social and institutional architectures and to make painfully clear the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the organization of social life.  At the same time, by disrupting the fundamental mechanisms and infrastructures of social order, catastrophes serve to define the conditions that inform our sense of the normal.  While much attention has been devoted to the study of specific catastrophic events, surprisingly little academic attention has been directed to the concept of catastrophe itself.  This course sets out to study the social, cultural, and historical meaning of catastrophe. We will examine the role and representation of catastrophe in religion, the visual arts, literature, law, and politics. At a time when societies are directing an unprecedented level of resources and ingenuity to anticipating and mitigating catastrophic events, we hope to better appreciate catastrophe as a key ordering term of civilization--as the specter of disorder that continues to haunt our social and political imagination.

Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professors Sarat and Douglas.


2020-21: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2013